Kathleen Walters ’73 believes strongly that Syracuse University has room for everyone. She cites the University’s longstanding history of supporting diversity and the importance of having an inclusive campus. “This notion that there is room for everyone has honestly defined my life,” she says. “I find that it’s a possibility for all. That’s really been the foundation for me and why I love this school.”
Walters is the new chair of the Syracuse University Board of Trustees and the first woman to hold the position. A mathematics major at Syracuse, Walters grew up in Rockville, Maryland, and arrived on campus sight unseen. “There weren’t college visit trips in my family,” she says. “But Syracuse turned out to be a defining point in my life.”
A recognized leader in the international business community, Walters currently serves as executive vice president of Georgia-Pacific and president of its consumer products group. She and her husband, Stan Walters ’72—an Orange football great who had a Pro Bowl career in the NFL and became a radio commentator for the Philadelphia Eagles—are longtime supporters of Syracuse University. They are dedicated alumni volunteers in the Atlanta area, where they live.
Here are some highlights of a conversation with Walters about her new role.
What motivates you to serve in this leadership role?
When I had the opportunity to join the board I thought it was a great honor and a way to give back. What’s happening with the University and its vision motivates me to want to keep helping in any way I can, as well as the general notion to want to give back to the place that got me started.
What are you most excited about at the University as you begin your service as chair?
The bright future of the University. There are so many positive things going on that will impact both our current and future students—new and improved academic programs; our new faculty hires in research areas where we can really excel; the impact of the National Veterans Resource Center ; our student experience; and the success of our student-athletes. Everything about the University feels very bright, and there are more ideas coming our way that will make the campus and programs even better for our students.
Why is the University’s emphasis on the whole student experience so important?
I met a young man at our Atlanta send-off for incoming students who was very shy, very academic. He really didn’t want to leave home, but he came to Syracuse. I think he initially doubted whether he was going to be able to compete and contribute, but he did, and now he’s more confident. He discovered that people are welcoming and accepting here—and that was very nurturing to him. I think Syracuse enables an individual to become more of a whole person and we’re trying to find ways to enhance that even more. I feel good about all the work that is moving forward to help students develop in a complete sense, whether it is health and wellness, academic and career advising, life skills or diversity and inclusion.
You can define your own path here, too. You can find your way into areas of the University that will give you all different kinds of experiences, even if they’re not part of your major .
In what ways has your experience leading large, complex organizations prepared you to serve as chair and how is Syracuse University different from the organizations you’ve led?
First, a difference: It’s humbling to work in a university environment. There are so many people who are well educated in their fields and have a tremendous depth of knowledge—they are truly thought leaders. It’s wonderful.
In general, I’ll rely on my ability to listen and be challenged. I believe that, ultimately, things improve if you listen carefully, take into account what you’re hearing and find ways to make things better. I also bring my belief in the ability of people in institutions to transform. We live in a fantastic world, but with the escalation of the capabilities in digital technology, struggles with globalization and on down the list, there’s going to be more disruption and transformation. I believe the University is well positioned to embrace this transformation and I’m committed to supporting our Chancellor in his vision for the future.
Can you say more about your belief in the potential of people in institutions to adapt and transform?
I have found that people can change—and help change the world—if you give each person a chance to see a bigger or better vision of the future. I have seen people have to do things that they never thought possible because they were able to look at the value of their personal contributions and the quality of their work in a new way. I believe in people. More importantly, I believe in helping people believe in themselves.
Can you discuss why it’s important for alumni to support the University and how it can have a positive impact?
I believe alumni for all universities need to consider who gave them a start on their journey in life. Whatever support they can give—no gift is too small. I think it’s hard for any one gift giver to imagine what that contribution can do to help support the work of our deans, our professors, our programs and our student experience. It also enables the University to look to the future—it costs money to improve programs, establish new programs and support and create scholarships. There are students who would never get the chance to attend Syracuse University if we didn’t have scholarships.
Every gift contributes ultimately to the students. It also contributes to the development of future citizens, and I believe it helps the world. I hope everyone thinks about the place they love—Syracuse University—and gives back to create a positive impact.